The Physicians Foundation Releases New Survey on Physician Practice and Wellbeing a Year into the Pandemic
The Physicians Foundation today released the results of a national survey, which finds that more than half (55%) of physicians know a physician who has considered, attempted or died by suicide in their career. The 2021 Survey of America’s Physicians, COVID-19 Impact Edition: A Year Later examines how COVID-19 has affected the nation’s physicians more than a year since the start of the pandemic, from increased burnout rates to the continued epidemic of physician suicide.
“Over the past year, the pandemic has shone a light on a problem that physicians have always faced: the stigma surrounding accessing mental health support and services for fear of looking weak or believing they will lose their license and credentials,” said Gary Price, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation.
“Nearly one-fifth of physicians indicated they know of someone who considered, attempted or died by suicide since the start of the pandemic alone, a time when many physicians have suffered trauma and loss. It is vital that we make a conscious and forward effort to break down stigma and encourage physicians to seek mental health support when they need it, especially in the wake of the most significant health event in recent history.”
Physician Burnout and Mental Health
Over the past year, COVID-19 has greatly impacted physician wellbeing and mental health, with over 6 in 10 physicians (61%) reporting they experienced feelings of burnout. This is a significant increase from the 40% of reported physicians in 2018. Yet only 14% of physicians reported they sought medical attention for their mental health symptoms. If left untreated, burnout can cause more cases of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use and lead to suicidal thoughts for physicians, directly impacting physician suicide rates.
Physician suicide has been a public health crisis long before the COVID-19 pandemic. While suicide is the ultimate consequence of rampant, unchecked burnout, there are many mental health challenges that physicians experience. For example, 46% of physicians noted they withdrew or isolated themselves from others, while 34% cited feelings of hopelessness or having no purpose as a result of COVID-19’s effects on their practice or employment situation.
Additionally, 8% of physicians indicated they have increased their use of medications, alcohol or illicit drugs weekly as a result of COVID-19’s effects on their practice or employment situation, showing a significant 10% decrease in reported increased usage as compared to last year.
“Given the high levels of stress, burnout and physical and mental harm caused to physicians by COVID-19, it is clear that more must be done to foster and promote physician wellbeing, for the good of the public and for physicians themselves,” said Robert Seligson, CEO of The Physicians Foundation. “We need to shift the paradigm from a system where it is taboo to be open about managing burnout, depression or suicidal thoughts to one where we have a plan in place to embrace and access mental health care options without consequence.”
Support Systems and Resources
As the survey reveals the negative effects of COVID-19 on physicians’ wellbeing, the findings also highlight the key role of support systems. Nearly all (89%) physicians cite their family as essential in supporting their wellbeing, followed by friends (82%) and colleagues (71%).
Institutions also provide support in meaningful ways. Fifty-three percent of physicians said their medical practice or group has been helpful to their mental health and wellbeing, while 35% reported similar benefits from their hospital or health system.
Also, more than 70% of physicians indicated they believe a multi-pronged approach needs to be taken to address mental health conditions, burnout and/or suicide prevention, including confidential therapy, counseling or a support phone line, the availability of peer-to-peer support groups and evidence-based professional training to prevent burnout, behavioral health conditions and suicide.
“The data reveals physicians want real, systematic change to how the field of medicine handles burnout and behavioral health conditions. We know evidence-based solutions exist; they now need to be scaled,” noted Dr. Price. “For example, through the Foundation’s collaboration with the American Medical Association in the Practice Transformation Initiative, Washington Permanente Medical Group in Washington state implemented pre-visit laboratory testing which gave their physicians the opportunity to discuss results directly with patients at their appointment. This streamlined administrative tasks and contributed to a reduction in the number of hours spent on indirect patient care by three hours. Physicians reported they experienced an increase in both overall job satisfaction and value alignment with clinical leaders.”
Additional findings from the 2021 Survey of America’s Physicians, COVID-19 Impact Edition: A Year Later include:
- A significantly larger proportion of younger (64%) and female (69%) physicians reported frequently feeling burnout as compared to older (59%) and male (57%) physicians.
- Physicians who were employed by hospitals or health systems experienced more frequent feelings of burnout (64%) as compared to independent physicians (56%).
- Nearly 8 in 10 physicians indicated they experienced changes to their practice or employment as a result of COVID-19.
- Almost half of physicians (49%) reported a reduction in income while 32% reported a reduction in staff as a result of the pandemic.
- Nearly 70% of physicians indicated they anticipate continuing the use of telehealth in their ongoing practice.
- Despite the high rates of burnout, nearly half (46%) of physicians said they would still recommend medicine as a career option to young people.
Read the full survey results here.
This information is intended for educational purposes only. If you need further guidance or are in a crisis, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) for free 24/7 support.
About The Physicians Foundation
The Physicians Foundation is a nonprofit seeking to advance the work of practicing physicians and help them facilitate the delivery of high-quality health care to patients. As the health care system in America continues to evolve, The Physicians Foundation is steadfast in its determination to strengthen the physician-patient relationship and assist physicians in sustaining their medical practices in today’s practice environment. It pursues its mission through a variety of activities including grant-making, research, white papers and policy studies. Since 2005, the Foundation has awarded numerous multi-year grants totaling more than $50 million. In addition, the Foundation focuses on the following core areas: physician leadership, physician wellness, physician practice trends, social determinants of health and the impact of health care reform on physicians and patients. For more information, visit www.physiciansfoundation.org.
The Physicians Foundation’s 2021 Survey of America’s Physicians, COVID-19 Impact Edition: A Year Later, was sent by email to a list of physicians derived from Medscape’s proprietary data base. WebMD/Medscape Research Services leveraged the AMA’s distribution of percentage of PCPs vs Specialists to set quotas for this study. The survey was fielded from May 26 – Jun 9, 2021, and the data presented is based on 2,504 responses.